James Lawton: Adlington's rare essence deserves poll position ahead of Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton is cruising to the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, a 4-9 favourite in whose wake even one of the scrappiest ever representatives of young British womanhood, Rebecca Adlington, can only flounder at 11-4.

Many thousands of pounds have already gone down on the world racing drivers' champion, despite the prohibitive odds. It's a fait accompli of apparently crushing proportions and, it has to be allowed, some way short of a national disaster in terms of the appreciation of great sporting achievement. Hamilton, anyone can acknowledge, is a phenomenal young racer.

So why is there such a strong urge to put down six pennies worth on behalf of the embryo shoe fetishist from Mansfield, the would-be Imelda Marcos of the Olympic pool?

Partly it is, at least in this quarter, because of the extraordinary place she claimed for herself as the foundation stone of Britain's superb Olympic achievement in Beijing. She didn't win the first, or the most, of the gold medals that poured into the British column but, with great respect to the triple gold medallist cyclist Chris Hoy, no one made a deeper impact, no one expressed more cleanly, more exultantly what it meant to be young and successful and still so fresh with joy and wonderment in what is so often the jaded vineyard of big-time sport.

Adlington, burbling about her favourite reality shows, her love of Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin shoes, was all at once an ordinary and brilliant girl. You would have been a little exasperated and inordinately proud to have her as your daughter. She said the silliest thing, and then something that moved you near to tears.

More than anyone else, she made it seem so easy to explain how precisely it felt to touch gold. She made so tangible her reward for all the effort of those bleak early mornings getting out of her bed in Nottinghamshire and going to the pool and sitting there, beside the unwelcoming water, and feeling so terrible and just dragging herself into the work.

She touched a chord too when she mentioned one of the great boons of winning gold. It meant increased sponsorship and if she might be able to jettison her banger in favour of, who knew, a smart Audi like her mother's, her budget would certainly no longer be strained by the need to buy new goggles.

For a few charmed days Becky Adlington was the heartbeat of resurgent British sport and, if Hamilton too has brought great pride to his nation, and satisfaction to his German engine manufacturers, it is not hard to understand her unexpected appeal to voters to remember the deeds of the Olympians, including her own.

She was speaking, among other things, of the relatively rare opportunity for an Olympian to achieve the pinnacle of his or her sport when compared to the annual chase for the Formula One prize. She had one chance in four years, Hamilton two in two, and with a record of one and one. This is not to diminish Hamilton's extraordinary achievement, or dispute the nerve that had to be held when it appeared that a cautious team strategy was in ruins, but then it is also true that her own race to glory was without a single caveat.

She was not expected to win the 400 metres, but she did it with glorious conviction and panache in the last strokes. Though she was favoured more strongly in the 800m, it was not anticipated she would smash the world record of the legendary Janet Evans by two seconds – a mark achieved when Adlington was six months old.

It was the first British women's swimming gold since Anita Lonsborough won in the Rome Olympics of 1960 and Adlington's sense of her own achievement, the satisfaction that welled so strongly about her, was perhaps most unforgettable of all.

Well, maybe not so unforgettable for so many if reports about the tide of voting prove to be anything like accurate. What are the voters saying? Not unreasonable things, plainly. They are saying that Hamilton is a prodigious and precocious talent who in his way has been every bit as dedicated as Adlington, perhaps even more so. They are saying he competes in a high-pressure world that demands hair-trigger reactions and fine judgement and that they are thrilled he has joined the great British tradition of world-beaters shaped by men like Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill and his son Damon, and Nigel Mansell. More significant, though, for supporters of the Adlington cause is what they are not saying, what indeed they cannot say.

They cannot say that Hamilton was not supported by the superior resources of his team, strength that was rivalled only by Ferrari, or that in the winning drive he was not guided to the line, however imperfectly, by the combined calculations of his powerful team.

Ultimately, it is of course an argument involving apples and oranges. Hamilton operates within the apparatus of a multimillion pound team. Adlington swims alone. Neither challenge can be equated beyond the force of will required to meet either of them.

So in the end you follow your heart and put down your money. That so many more are doing this on behalf of Hamilton than they are Adlington is no doubt a welcome victory for the somewhat raddled image of Formula One. What it says for an understanding of the essence of sport is maybe another, and not necessarily uplifting, matter.

Wright's right to attack cretins of the terraces

Here is a statement, I have just discovered, requiring a sharp intake of breath and the resolve to press forward come what may. I agree with Ian Wright.

Many will say that in his article in The Sun yesterday he defended the indefensible when he spoke up for Didier Drogba after the Chelsea player threw a coin back into the Burnley section of the Stamford Bridge crowd. Wright, after admitting that Drogba had been foolhardy, reserved his most biting criticism for the "cretins" who started the business.

Yes, he pointed out, Drogba was guilty of an offence and was right to apologise. But will the fans who first threw the coins be pursued with anything like the frenzy that Drogba now faces?

Of course it will not happen. The "minority fringe" will melt into the great warm body of fanhood, the objects of almost entirely unfulfilled threats about their banishment from watching the game they despoil.

The trouble is that the minority fringe is not so minuscule. You only have to listen to the hateful tone of so many crowds to know that acts of violence can only be a small step away.

Lip service has always been paid to the problem – but what about the serious action? It has never matched the vigour that the police and the FA display when a player has overstepped the mark, but of course the player is generally living in a mansion and driving a Maserati. He is paid to be abused and insulted and if someone occasionally throws a small, hard metal object at him at high speed he is supposed to pick it up, hand it to the referee and resume normal service. Unfortunately, life doesn't always work like this and, if Drogba happens to be a provocative figure, who had gratuitously celebrated his goal in front of the Burnley fans, it is also true that he could easily have been blinded by one of the missiles. He could have been killed.

This was what was so shocking about Roy Keane's failure to criticise his Sunderland fans after they had thrown coins at Joey Barton at the Stadium of Light and invaded the pitch recently. Keane is willing to eviscerate verbally almost anyone who comes into his sights. But the scattergun is put aside, apparently, the moment he sees the danger of eroding his fan base.

Wright this week took a run at the sacrosanct inhabitants of the terraces. He was dead right.

It is a little easier when you say it again.

Sir David Attenborough
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